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Has Homecoming Lost Its Way?

Abdication of 'king' ignites debate over relevance of a fall ritual.


Moments after being crowned homecoming king in front of 5,000 spectators, Patrick Griffiths carefully placed his crown on the ground and walked off the Mira Costa High School football field. He did so in protest against what he called a superficial popularity contest. He knew he was making a statement, but the lanky 17-year-old--a self-described "intellectual anarchist" who doesn't believe in armed revolution--never dreamed his actions would make national headlines.

Since that night last month, Griffiths has received dozens of calls and e-mails from as far away as Canada and Australia. He also received a two-day suspension, which was later expunged from his record. Officials at the Manhattan Beach high school will not discuss the suspension, citing school district policy not to talk about individual discipline cases.

If this sounds like scenes from the 1999 black comedy "Election" (about a high school race for student body president that pits a "perfect" student against a couple of unlikely opponents), it may be because it reflects the changing nature of popularity and tradition in today's high schools. For, while many schools still go full throttle for the fall homecoming ritual, the way they embrace the event is evolving. Some educators argue that the event simply doesn't hold the shine it once did. Others say homecoming more than ever is an important time for developing a sense of community in schools. They claim it merely needs to be updated to make it more relevant for today's youth.


For many Americans, homecoming evokes memories of an innocent era filled with pep rallies, school dances, football games and the homecoming court. For others, it calls to mind the awkward years of not belonging, of watching from outside as time after time the "in" crowd celebrated its own.

On the night of the crowning, a friend planned to read a statement explaining Griffiths' action but was drowned out by pregame fireworks. Griffiths later said he renounced the crown in the name of "freaks and geeks" and kids who were simply tired of the pressure to fit in.

"You may not be popular, but who is popular? There's about 10% that's popular and about 90% that's not . . . so maybe we shouldn't be having these kinds of contests," he said.

Griffiths' critics point out that the fact someone who embraces nontraditional values won shows the homecoming ritual has already changed. They say his renunciation was unnecessary and only served to mock his peers and ruin an event that took weeks to plan. Griffiths says he was trying to draw attention to the issue and spark debate.

In fact, Griffiths' election is not an anomaly. In recent years there have been other examples nationally of nonconformists being nominated to homecoming court. Indiana University professor Robert Billingham, who studies adolescent development, believes the changing focus of homecoming reflects the society in which many students live. "If you look at the historical setting, you did not have the diversity in the high schools. Most members in the high school class could identify with this one individual.

"We have moved away from the idea that an individual is going to be the leader that we all look up to and emulate," Billingham said. "There's more subgroup membership. The geeks and the freaks and the athletes now define themselves as equal to any other group," he said. Thus each group is more likely to nominate one of its own.

Documentary of High School Life

R.J. Cutler, executive producer of the documentary series "American High," spent more than a year filming a group of seniors in Highland Park, Ill., a wealthy suburb of Chicago. He says he's not surprised by Griffiths' election--or his abdication.

Cutler recalled one of the girls he filmed, who was considered a nonconformist by her peers, frequently dyeing her hair and dressing differently. She was nominated for the homecoming court, although she didn't win. Cutler said the experience seemed of little importance to the kids, and was barely included in his series.

Leaning against a wall outside Mira Costa High School, Griffiths, who regularly wears clothing with metal studs and sports a bleach-blond and black ponytail, said he agrees the groups kids fall into may be becoming more fluid. He is also a member of the school's academic decathlon team and animal-rights group, and he helps run a Web site that promotes independent photography of political events at

Until homecoming, he was also in student government but resigned in the wake of the controversy over his action.

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